Hidden Gem: 'Verdict' Examines a Struggle for Justice in the Philippines

Max Eigenmann plays a woman who presses charges against her husband after years of abuse in 'Verdict.'

Writer-director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez's unflinching drama evaluates rampant domestic abuse in his home country but intentionally offers few answers.

Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s first feature forced its way into his consciousness. It all started with the screaming. "I was relaxing, and suddenly I could hear a couple fighting, really loudly," he recalls. "I took a look outside and saw a woman bruised, brutally. Her husband was asking us for help as their child had been accidentally hit by a plate."

Verdict, Gutierrez’s full-length debut, trains its focus on domestic violence in the Philippines, an issue that affects a quarter of all married women in the country, according to government statistics.

"I’m very close to my mother and my sisters," says the director. "Seeing that kind of violence close up affected me deeply. I wanted to know more about the law and these types of cases, which it turned out are very usual in the Philippines."

Gutierrez turned a lot of what he knew about his neighbors into Verdict’s story of a wife and mother (Max Eigenmann) who struggles to win justice for herself and daughter (Jordhen Suan) after sustained abuse from her husband (Kristoffer King). "I wanted to show the problem but not try to offer any solutions at all," says Gutierrez. "Things are not black and white. The law is not always fair. Filmmaking is about life, and I just want to show how life is."

Verdict is the only feature from the Philippines playing at TIFF — it screens as part of the Contemporary World Cinema program on Sept. 10, 12 and 14 — but Gutierrez, just 26, already carries with him an impressive pedigree. His first short, Imago (2016), won TIFF’s Short Cuts Award, and his second, Judgement (2018), was nominated. He counts as his mentors the award-winning screenwriter-director pair of Armando Lao and director Brillante Mendoza, who combined for Kinatay, winner of the Cannes best director prize in 2009. They also champion the "found stories" theory of filmmaking with its focus on the docudrama style reflected in Mendoza’s portrayal of the darker sides of contemporary Philippine life.

Critics claim this approach has resulted in Mendoza’s recent films coming a little too close to giving tacit endorsement to the policies of controversial Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. Gutierrez, though, brushes off such concerns and sounds a lot like his mentors when he says his stories simply "reflect reality." "The mantra [of the found stories movement] is that we mirror what life is," explains Gutierrez. "We’re not saying what should be done in the future. It’s not my intention to be political, but if you tackle social issues, people will look for politics. What I do think is that we are all corrupt in some way and that it is just a matter of how corrupt you are."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 6 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.